Are Essential Oils Really That Essential?

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Even though I don’t use them that often, I must admit, I am rather partial to the uplifting aroma of bergamot and the deep sensual notes of patchouli essential oil. Recently, however, I have started to question the ethics of using such products. Lovely as they are, I don’t really consider them to be all that essential especially with regard to sustainable agriculture and a growing world.

Over the last 40 or so years, the world has lost a third of its arable land due to erosion or pollution. Experts tell us that about 40 percent of soil used for agriculture is already considered degraded. This decline in healthy soil is occurring at the same time as the world’s demand for food is rapidly increasing. Potentially, this means less available land to grow food for our ever-growing human population. So, taking all this into consideration, we have to ask ourselves should we really be using large amounts of land, water and energy for something so seemingly frivolous and unnecessary as ‘essential’ oils. Because in all honesty, although essential oils are reputed to have certain ‘healing’ properties, I feel they are mostly being purchased for our sensory pleasure.

As global citizens, we have not learned how to equitably distribute vital resources like food, and water resources are trending toward a crisis of the future. So there are deep ethical concerns about devoting croplands to essential oils destined for use in candles, bath oils, perfumes or lavish massage and spa purposes.
— Mindy green - Author

Here are some examples of the quantity of plant resources used in the production of essential oils. It takes 5.5 pounds of lavender and 88.3 pounds of rose petals, to make just 10ml of each essential oil. In other words - approximately 60,000 rose buds are required to make one ounce of essential oil and 30-50 roses are used to create just a single drop.

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Not only is it a question of ethical land use, it is also one of sustainability. Many of the well known essential oil companies source their raw materials from corporate farms that produce large quantities of plants. However, some plants used for essential oils are not responsibly-sourced and over-harvesting has caused some trees and plants to become threatened species. An article on the ‘Conservation of Essential Oil-, Carrier Oil-, and Extract-Bearing Plants’ by Kelly M. Ablard, PhD, EOT, RA contains lists of critically- endangered, endangered, vulnerable, near threatened and least concern plants from which essential oils are extracted. Included are popular oils such as rosewood, sandalwood, frankincense, and cedarwood, to name but a few.

Finally, there is the matter of disposal. Essential oils are highly concentrated, flammable substances that should be treated like other hazardous materials. If an oil is contaminated or rancid and cannot be used, it must be disposed of through a hazardous-waste collection service. Most cities offer hazardous household waste programs. Essential oils should not be disposed of down drains or via other methods that can cause the substances to come into contact with water supplies, as they are toxic to aquatic life and can have long-lasting impacts on marine ecosystems. Alternatively, leftover or contaminated oil can be soaked up onto a porous, non-flammable material that can allow the scent to freshen your surroundings for a while or even added to homemade cleaning products for scent.

When it comes to recycling, most good quality essential oils come in glass bottles which, once cleaned can be recycled in most cities, although always check with your local council/community first. Unfortunately, most essential oils also come with a plastic lid and sometimes a rollerball or drop-dispenser which, due to recycling constraints and their small size will most likely end up in landfill.  Alternatively here are 13 Genius Ways To Re Use Essential Oil Bottles You Probably Never Thought Of from Natural Living Ideas to consider before recycling.

If you still feel that essential oils are essential in your life, then consider how truly precious they are and use them in moderation by using them sparingly. Don’t use essential oils which come from threatened species because purchasing these oils means that you are contributing to the endangerment of these specific plants. Another option is to have a go at making your own essential oils or herbal concoctions. You never know, it could be fun!!

Making Your Own Essential Oils

Photo by  Lisa Hobbs  on  Unsplash

Photo by Lisa Hobbs on Unsplash

You can make your own version of essential oils at home using either extraction or distillation methods. When doing so, be mindful of how your plants are sourced. If you, a neighbour or friend have a garden then some of your plant materials could be found there or failing that, a sunny windowsill could produce a few homegrown herbs. Citrus oils can be made as a by-product from fruit you have already consumed. Another option is ‘wildcrafting’ otherwise known as ‘foraging’, which is the practice of gathering plants from the wild. Done with care and consideration, this can be a sustainable form of sourcing plants whilst minimizing your environmental footprint. This list of Sustainable Herbal Farm Ethical Wildcrafters in the US and Canada and the Woodland Trust in the UK are excellent resources for local foraging information. Elsewhere, please make sure that you check foraging guides and rules for your country. If you have none of these natural resources to hand and have to purchase from elsewhere, make sure to find out where and how the plants are produced so that you can buy them from responsible sources.

For more info on how to make your own essential oil, check out the links below:

By harvesting massive quantities of plants to make essential oils (sometimes to the point of extinction) and sold en masse to humans to “heal their body” we completely miss the point. Health comes from the harmonious balance with the natural world. There are sustainable methods of creating herbal and plant medicine, but essential oils are not one of them.
— Summer Bock - Gut Health Expert & Trained Herbalist